Michael Stevenson Cape Town
Nicholas Hlobo’s exhibition Izele is an act of brilliant and pointed discomfort: it is a show with titles almost exclusively in Xhosa, a fact that confounds, intimidates and hides its most intimate meanings from its many non-Xhosa speaking visitors, while welcoming and revealing nuances to native speakers; it is a show that apparently invites conversations about ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ yet resists insider readings thereof; and it is a show that queers normative black masculinity and yet operates somewhere beyond queer, in a zone of transgender unspecificity where codes of male and female are not simply subverted but somehow coalesced and scrambled. This discomfort becomes metaphor – metatext even – for identities forged in liminal spaces, that is, on the thresholds and at the boundaries of tradition, ethnicity, culture, sexuality and race. Hlobo mentions in his walkabout that he often feels himself slipping away from his culture and perhaps this exhibition should be read as an effort to engage, albeit subversively, those nodes that provide fixity and certainty, albeit perversely. Take for instance Umthubi, a reconstruction of a round kraal within the gallery walls, using exotic and indigenous wooden stakes which Hlobo says refer to the fact that he is not “just Xhosa,” but has a diverse genealogy. The inside of the kraal is spanned – like a hide – with woven pink ribbon, a symbolically queer and feminine infiltration into this most exclusive domain of male and patriarchal authority. The kraal, used to keep animals but also a space reserved for older men and rituals of manhood, is not simply challenged from the inside by someone who does and doesn’t belong, but it is also literally rendered unusable, posing questions about its continued significance. And yet, as Hlobo explains, the title invokes a celebration of new life in its reference to the first rich milk given to a calf. It is this detail which really thickens the work’s significance: is this camp re-fashioning of a traditional icon, perhaps the key to its continued relevance and survival? In Ndiyafuna Hlobo sews (in red and white ribbon) a huge balloon-like rubber bag, into which a male figure is disappearing – or perhaps emerging from. The title is in the first-person, meaning it is also us, the viewer, who is desiring or looking for something in this womb-like bag. Or perhaps the bag is giving birth to this figure; after all, the title of the show Izele refers to this notion of adding to something. As Hlobo explains, “the act of giving birth is not foreign to the idea of adding to something that is there”. And what is Hlobo adding? In Ndiyafuna, as in the adjacent works Chitha and Intente, which also use black rubber, Hlobo adds to and infiltrates established codes and conducts. Intente shows a huge penis stitched in white ribbon and anchored down by rocks encased in ribbon, like a giant patch-work erection crafted from women’s work. Chita uses a wooden dumb valet as the merging point for two struggling figures; the female figure, dressed in a rubber dress and standing on the floor is lifting a male figure, in a suit, into the air and onto the wall. While this work feels perhaps somewhat contrived in concept and execution, it nevertheless foregrounds the scrambling of established codes that stands central to this show, of turning things inside-out and thereby adding to our reading of cultural and sexual conventions.Hlobo talks eloquently about the show and his catalogue contains a valuable interview with the artist wherein he decodes in detail the many symbolic layers of materials and elements. However, these explanations – helpful as they are – sometimes become a little overbearing, arresting the viewer at a point of interpretation that could have been developed further through the sheer intrigue of this show. For instance, on the opening night Hlobo performed Umkwetha (initiate or trainee traditional healer), moving through the exhibition and interacting with the works, but not with the crowd. Dressed in a white skirt with a stringy silicone garment over his head from which a red phallic object rose, Hlobo incarnates an initiate – but of what? The ambiguity of this strange, ghostlike figure seemed an apt avatar for the questions raised by this show, about being neither on the inside nor outside, of the many trajectories that give form to this artist’s, but also our, identities.